Posted: March 30th, 2022

De-Penalisation, Decriminalisation and Legalisation

Cannabis in the UK: De-Penalisation, Decriminalisation, or Legalisation?


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In October of 2015, the Parliament of the United Kingdom was forced to debate whether the current prohibition on cannabis should end in some way. “Forced” is the correct word here, because Parliament seems otherwise unwilling to address the issue, but in this case it was obliged by its own policy, whereby any petition signed by at least one hundred thousand people must necessarily trigger a parliamentary debate. In the case of the issue of ending the prohibition on cannabis, the petition requesting that Parliament address the issue received well over the required number of signatures; it was, in the words of Smith (2015), “a petition signed by 220,000 people – the third most popular on Parliament’s website.” Therefore on 12 October 2015, Parliament was obliged to take up the matter for debate. Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb ultimately took up the central cause of the petitioners, and spoke directly in terms that reflected the basic premise of the petition that was made:


“The whole debate has shifted dramatically now… as we see state after state starting this debate, with many states in the U.S. deciding to establish legalised regulated markets. And of course the basic principle it seems to me is, do you put a potentially dangerous product into the hands of criminals who have no interest in your welfare at all or do you seek to regulate it? And I think in terms of public health protection of individuals and avoiding the ludicrous criminalisation of so many young people, a legalised regulated market makes a lot of sense.” (quoted in Hopkins 2015)


Certain aspects of Norman Lamb’s statement here require a slightly closer attention, so that the terms of the debate over ending the prohibition on cannabis can be properly understood. The first is Lamb’s direct reference to shifting policies in certain of the United States, although perhaps not in that nation as a whole. Prohibitionist drug policies worldwide have, historically, on the whole been supported if not demanded by the government of the United States of America. Yet it is an undeniable fact that this American-driven international consensus has begun to fray in recent years, not only as various nations — for example Uruguay, which had over the course of 2013 and 2014 decriminalized possession of cannabis for personal use (with no limit on the amount that could be possessed) and legalized the growing of marijuana plants by individuals — began to back away from the American model of punitive prohibition, but also as individual jurisdictions within the United States, such as the individual states of Colorado and Washington, began to decriminalize and regulate the sale and consumption of cannabis within their own state borders.


However Lamb’s claim that in the UK a “legalized regulated market makes a lot of sense” does not capture the sense of how astonishingly backward the position of the British government appears in 2016. A “legalized regulated market” like that adopted by Colorado in the United States is, of course, primarily one in which cannabis can be sold and consumed for recreational purposes. But recreation is — historically and in the present moment — not the only or primary reason to consume cannabis or to find some way of giving it some status as a commodity beyond unmitigated contraband. Although the issue has been subject to debate — perhaps unfairly and tendentiously, as part of an effort to justify what in 2016 looks like a moribund regime of total prohibition — cannabis is widely recognized to have medicinal value as well. Indeed, the vast majority of speakers in the 12 October 2015 Parliamentary debate on ending total prohibition on cannabis raised this issue with reference to anecdotes from constituents (if not from personal experience) in order to make the point that medicinal cannabis is currently unavailable due to the United Kingdom’s policy of blanket prohibition, which makes the government’s position seem even more indefensible. Reynolds (2015) notes that “medicinal cannabis is now available on prescription in Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain,” and combined with the various types of medical access available in large parts of the United States, “currently more than 500 million people in the ‘First World’ have legal access to medicinal cannabis. The UK is notable for its failure to give any serious consideration to such reform since 1998, despite reasonable estimates of up to one million British people using cannabis for medicinal purposes” (4). As the petition that Parliament was obliged to debate did also make reference to the idea of cannabis as a medicinal substance, so was Parliament obliged to raise this matter — although if the medical issue had been considered by itself, the United Kingdom’s strange and antiquated policy of total prohibition might have been set into even more stark relief when compared to the rest of the developed world. The question of why the United Kingdom should be so stubborn in its adherence to a policy of total prohibition becomes even more glaring. One is tempted to wonder if it is a blind adherence to some kind of Victorian moralism, except that in the case of cannabis, to call the present British policy of total prohibition in 2016 “Victorian” is actually an insult to the Victorians: as Curran and Warburton (2015) among others have noted, in the nineteenth century cannabis was “widely available in the UK and cannabis tincture was prescribed to Queen Victoria for period pains and during childbirth” (3). It is somewhat amazing to think that, if Queen Victoria were to step out of a TARDIS into the London of 2016 and feel a twinge of royal mittelschmerz, she would risk prosecution for possession of a Class C drug for simply taking as medicine what the royal physicians had prescribed for her legally and in good faith.


In fact, it has become clear to most British citizens in 2016 — if not to Parliament or to David Cameron and his cabinet — that present regime of total prohibition of cannabis seems downright irrational. But it is probably useful to begin a survey of how best to revise the policy of prohibition by acknowledging that this irrationalism may be a consequence of the subject matter that is under consideration. Stevens (2011) notes that reasonable debate about the cannabis prohibition may prove elusive because


… arguments over drug policy are not always carried out on rational grounds. The moral value of ‘purity/sanctity’, which is much more common amongst conservatives than liberals (Haidt & Graham, 2007), has long been influential in determining drug policy. Ambiguous people and substances are often categorised as dirty (Douglas, 1966), and so to be avoided and excluded. Douglas has shown how these types of value shape the moral choices of both pre-modern and modern societies. However, just because such quasi-religious judgements have been important in shaping drug and other policies, this does not mean that we should accept their continuing influence. (Stevens 2011, 237)


But if the policy of prohibition is being maintained in Great Britain in the face of common sense and rational thought, then that makes the present consequences of the policy all the more astonishing in the twenty-first century. As Orwell Prize-winning (and Orwell Prize-forfeiting) journalist Johann Hari (2015) has pointed out, “twenty-four thousand people in Britain are cautioned or charged every year for cannabis possession alone” (294). Meanwhile Van Den Brink (2008) notes that in “2001, £38 million [was] spent on the arrest, prosecution and incarceration of cannabis offenders; money that could have been spent on other, more relevant, activities” (125). Is this exaggerated lavish cost, both in terms of the public expenditure from the treasury and in terms of the lives altered by arrest or prosecution or incarceration for cannabis offences, even justifiable in terms of public safety? As Ostrowski (1990) has tartly and appositely observed, “although a number of persons have died as a result of marijuana enforcement, there are no confirmed deaths traceable to marijuana use” (697). And even the policy which exacts such a steep fiscal and human toll does not seem justifiable when it becomes apparent that even its most basic premises are not enforceable. As Stevenson (1997) argues, the American-devised international mandate that prohibition begin not merely with such draconian law enforcement in consumer nations (like Great Britain) but even earlier with a complete eradication of the cannabis supply in the largely poor and underdeveloped nations that grow and produce it, offers a premise which appears contradictory from the start; in his words, “perhaps the most withering indictment of supply-side policy is found in the U.S.A. which is one of the world’s largest producers of cannabis. It seems unreasonable to expect Third World countries to control drug production when the U.S. government is incapable of achieving this end within its own territorial limits” (35). If cannabis policy is (like the 2003 invasion of Iraq) just another example of an issue where Great Britain strives valiantly to follow a dire and ill-advised policy set by the United States of America, then it is worth noting both of these facts: that the costs to Great Britain in adhering to the policy are tremendous, and the ability of the United States to adhere to its own fervently-espoused policy is tenuous at best.


Lest this seem like mere facile America-bashing, several facts must be acknowledged. The first is that, of course, the United States has no direct policy sway over Great Britain — unlike the Iraq War, in which both nations as NATO members and military allies might be expected to co-operate on a matter that was deemed (howsoever spuriously) a matter of national defence, the prohibition on cannabis is hardly a military matter. Instead, the American policy directive issues forth to the United Kingdom and to the rest of the world by means of the United Nations. Booth (2015) notes that “most UN member countries admit that a complete prohibition of cannabis is impossible — and perhaps not entirely desirable — but they are not prepared to address the matter for fear of incurring American displeasure” (331) But the second fact that should be acknowledged here is that the British adherence to an American policy of punitive prohibition regarding drugs is by no means a blind adherence, as the example of David Blunkett demonstrates. JH Mills (2013) recounts this depressing episode in abortive reform of Britain’s untenable laws on cannabis:


In 2003 David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, sought to reclassify cannabis to ensure that those caught in possession of it in the UK could not be arrested. He was immediately scolded by Philip Emafo … president of the International Narcotics Control Board of the United Nations, the most senior drugs official in the world [that] no government should take unilaterial measures without considering the impact of its actions and ultimately the consequences for an entire system that took governments almost a century to establish. (1)


In some sense, we might credit Blunkett with being a visionary, who was able to see clearly and accurately the way the international consensus was transforming, but who made the mistake of acting too soon. Five years after Blunkett’s attempt to re-classify cannabis as a Class C drug, Sir Michael Rawlins — in his final year as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs — upheld the scientific consensus and ratified Blunkett’s judgment in the 2008 report by declaring that “cannabis should remain a Class C drug” (Rawlins 2008, 32). But noted comedy frump and occasional Home Secretary Jacqui Smith chose to override the recommendation of Rawlins and his panel of scientific experts, and returned cannabis to its previous classification as a dangerous and criminal Class B drug, roughly a year after Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s announcement that Smith would be conducting a full review of Britain’s cannabis laws, followed the next day by Smith’s admission that, as an Oxford undergraduate, she had smoked cannabis “just a few times” but had “not particularly” enjoyed it because “drugs are wrong” (BBC News, 2007). In some sense, Smith’s 2008 decision to re-criminalize cannabis was the last attempt on the part of the Labor Government to uphold the U.N.’s American-inflected policy of total prohibition; in less than a decade, this policy has begun to collapse. The collapse began because the policy was, as Collins (2014) argues, untenable:


The failure of the UN to achieve its goal of ‘a drug free world’ and the continuation of enormous collateral damage from excessively militarised and enforcement-led drug policies, has led to growing calls for an end to the ‘war on drugs’. For decades the UN-centred drug control system has sought to enforce a uniform set of prohibitionist oriented policies often at the expense of other, arguably more effective policies that incorporate broad frameworks of public health and illicit market management. Now the consensus that underpinned this system is breaking apart and there is a new trajectory towards accepting global policy pluralism and that different policies will work for different countries and regions. (6)


But there can be no greater sign that the ability of the United Nations to bully member nations into agreeing to a prohibitionist approach than the fact that, on 19 October 2015, just a week after Parliament was obliged to debate revising the policy of cannabis prohibition (and Cameron’s government declared it would continue to uphold prohibition), the United Nations itself displayed dissension among its own ranks when the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime leaked a draft memo arguing that “small drug related offenses, such as drug dealing to maintain personal drug use or to survive in a very marginalized environment, could be interpreted as drug related offenses of a ‘minor nature’, as mentioned in the international drug control conventions. These cases should receive rehabilitation opportunities, social support and care, and not punishment” (UNODC 2015, 2). However, after the memo was leaked, according to the BBC’s Mark Easton, it was immediately ” … withdrawn after pressure from at least one country …The UNODC has been under pressure for some time to make a clear statement with regard to decriminalisation of drug possession and use. Other UN agencies including the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS have been explicit in their opposition to drug users facing criminal sanctions on health and human rights grounds. Campaigners have long believed that the UNODC is the key to changing government drug policies … ” (Easton 2015). However it is worth noting that March 2016 will be the U.N. General Assembly’s Special Session on Drug Policy. And already the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, led by Baroness Meacher, has issued its statements that legalisation and regulated markets for cannabis would actually be viable within the U.N.’s existing (and seemingly draconianly prohibitionist) Conventions; in the words of the APPG’s position paper, written by the Liberal Democrat law lord and barrister, Lord Carlile of Berriew, “the Conventions allow for a degree of flexibility as regards criminalisation of possession, purchase or cultivation of drugs for personal use.” (Carlile Clark 2014, 2). This is astounding coming barely a decade after the U.N.’s Philip Emafo delivered his very public rebuke to David Blunkett’s 2003 attempt to relax cannabis prohibition. If nothing else, it appears to indicate that a serious reform of the policy of cannabis prohibition in the UK may finally be nigh. But the prospect of reforming prohibition leaves the larger question of what policy will replace it: depenalisation, decriminalisation, or legalisation?


In considering these three different options, it is useful to recall Aoyagi’s 2006 article “Beyond Punitive Prohibition: Liberalizing the Dialogue on International Drug Policy,” published in International Law and Politics. Aoyagi begins her discussion by noting that


There are a variety of alternatives to punitive prohibition that, for analytical convenience, [we] will generally consider under the imprecise rubric of “non-prohibition.” Because punitive prohibition has long been the prevailing international view and non-prohibitive alternatives tend to be defined, at least currently, primarily in opposition to it, such an approach is particularly appropriate. On the other hand, due to the analytical differences between them, it is important to distinguish legalization from what is loosely termed “harm minimization.” It should be noted that, like prohibition, harm reduction is susceptible to the potential dangers of language manipulation. For example, what is “harm”? How should one conceptualize harm? (Aoyagi 2006, 570)


Aoyagi’s points here are well worth considering. For a start, we must consider her designation that the current status quo is not merely prohibition of cannabis, but “punitive prohibition”: this is comprised, according to her definition, of “policies that rely on penal sanctions (incarceration) to punish those who use ‘illicit’ drugs,” where it is considered that “the best way to deal with those drugs used largely for recreational purposes — in particular marijuana, cocaine, and heroin — is by severely punishing persons who use them” (560). Because this approach “has long been the prevailing international view” that means that any reformist position is going to be defined “primarily in opposition” to punitive prohibition. Therefore, following Aoyagi’s argument, the differing options of depenalisation, decriminalisation, and legalisation can all be described under the common (if “imprecise”) heading of “non-prohibition.”


However, as Aoyagi notes, “harm minimization” (or “harm reduction”) is an important concept in the reform of drug laws — perhaps especially so when considering the reform of cannabis laws, for reasons that may ultimately seem counterintuitive — and “harm reduction” differs from any of these legal approaches that could be considered “non-prohibition.” “Harm reduction” is instead a rationale offered for the policy selected, and as such, it is the most commonly-offered reformist rationale — as well as, increasingly, the most commonly-offered justification for the status quo. Part of the difficulty here, as Nutt (2009) has noted in an already-legendary argument on drug prohibition, is that “the drug debate takes place without reference to other causes of harm in society, which tends to give drugs a different, more worrying, status.” (3). Nutt asks the reader to consider “an overlooked addiction with implications for the current debate on drug harms” which he terms “Equasy.” He notes that about ten people in Great Britain die annually as a result of Equasy, and that Equasy frequently leads to irreversible brain damage, irreparable physical injury, and a host of other grave health consequences. Nutt then reveals that the statistics on harm and death are all accurate, because “Equasy” is just a made-up name for horseback-riding. Nutt’s point is that there are plenty of activities which people undertake voluntarily, for recreation or as a kind of obsessive driven “addiction,” which are extremely dangerous — indeed, more people in the UK die every year from horseback-riding accidents than die from taking the club-drug Ecstasy (the drug which gives Nutt his joking neologism). However deaths from drug use are overreported in the media, whereas deaths from horseback-riding tend to pass with little comments. In terms of reforming the cannabis prohibition, however, Nutt’s points are worth considering. Whatever policy replaces total prohibition is going to be judged in terms of “harm reduction” — but the issue of what constitutes “harm” and how it should be reduced is one which can be approached tendentiously in order to justify almost any approach possible.


For example, do we consider cannabis to be more “harmful” than tobacco or alcohol? Both tobacco and alcohol are legally obtainable, which cannabis is not. However tobacco and alcohol are both subject to heavy degrees of governmental regulation — outside the United Kingdom, after all, there are places where it is possible to drink a pint in a pub after eleven o’clock P.M. or purchase a pack of cigarettes that does not have a ghoulishly apotropaic slogan like “SMOKING KILLS” blazoned on its exterior. And once again we may recall Ostrowski’s observation, quoted above, that while it is certain that “persons have died as a result of marijuana enforcement, there are no confirmed deaths traceable to marijuana use” — something which is untrue of both alcohol (which, consumed in sufficient quantity, is lethally poisonous) and tobacco (which has a more demonstrable link with lung cancer than cannabis does, especially since cannabis can be consumed without smoking it). But if cannabis is deemed less “harmful” than either alcohol or tobacco, let us consider two legitimate studies that have been done on cannabis usage. Chaloupka Pacula et al. (1999) revealed that higher cigarette prices will not increase marijuana use. In fact, the authors’ data suggests that higher cigarette prices will both reduce youth smoking and lower the frequency of marijuana use among youthful users. Higher prices also would likely lower the probability of young people using marijuana at all. The authors find that a 10% increase in the price of cigarettes would reduce the probability of using marijuana by between 3.4 and 7.3% and would decrease the average level of use by regular users by between 3.6 and 8.4%. However DiNardo and Lemieux (2001) found that “increases in the minimum drinking age did reduce the prevalence of alcohol consumption” but also “had the unintended consequence of increasing the prevalence of marijuana consumption” (991). What is noteworthy of course is that both of these studies (published in 1999 and 2001) were undertaken in years when the prohibition of cannabis, and the legality of alcohol and tobacco, were all taken for granted. In other words, both studies assume that an increase in cannabis usage by young people should actually be deemed “harmful” to the extent that these young people are straying into “criminal” behavior (even though buying alcohol or cigarettes when underage is no more or less a violation of the law than buying contraband cannabis).


This comparison of cannabis with alcohol and cigarettes may seem facile, but it allows us entry into a more substantial discussion. It was almost thirty years ago when one of Great Britain’s most reliably conservative journals of opinion, The Economist, published (to some surprise) a lead editorial arguing in favor of broad-scale drug legalisation. This landmark editorial from 2 April 1988, headlined “Getting Gangsters out of Drugs,” is worth quoting at some length:


[I]n countries like Britain lawful alcohol directly kills some 10,000 people a year, and is instrumental in about half of the country’s violent crime. Cigarettes in Britain kill 100,000 a year. Marijuana, one of the illegals, has hardly killed anybody yet; but the toll from it will rise because it is a poison with the defects of both the legal drugs. Tobacco and marijuana give you lung cancer; alcohol and marijuana make you run over pedestrians in your car …A sensible public policy might be to treat all three — alcohol, tobacco marijuana — the same, with licensing, taxes and quality control. Since all are bad for you, it may be right to plaster them with larger health warnings that those that are at last helping to cut smoking. Wary governments might stop the pub culture spreading to the communal joint culture by restricting marijuana sale to boringly uncongenial premises, like the glum state liquor-stores of Sweden or New Hampshire; or give monopolies to state shops like the post office, which has perfected the art of driving customers away. But a main weapon should be tax: high enough to deter consumption, and varied enough to move people from the worst drugs. Today’s worst are possibly cocaine and certainly heroin. (Economist 1988, 11)


In retrospect, it is perhaps even more remarkable to see The Economist advocating a high rate of taxation on a consumer product than it is to see The Economist advocating the legalisation of drugs tout court (because the editorial goes on to offer some proposals for how heroin, cocaine, and even LSD and PCP can be legalized and then subjected to extremely high rates of excise). But in some sense, all the editors of The Economist were really advocating was recognition that the illegal trade in prohibited drugs is, in reality, a thriving consumer marketplace, against which all the tactics of prohibition have proved entirely unavailing. The editorial presupposes, of course, that the purpose in legalisation and taxation would ultimately be the same as the supposed purpose of punitive prohibition, which is harm reduction by means of deterrence. If a prison sentence for buying and selling cannabis is justifiable insofar as it is intended to serve as a deterrent to cannabis use overall, then the authors of the editorial wish to make the case that a regulated and supervised marketplace with prohibitively high taxation would serve more effectively as a deterrent. In point of fact, the plan that they outline, somewhat whimsically, is to use taxation as a way of social engineering: they suggest taxation should be “high enough to deter consumption” of all drugs, but that it should also be “varied enough to move people from the worst drugs.” In other words, the taxation on different drugs would be higher or lower depending on whether the drug is deemed one of the “worst” — and as the editors make clear, they consider cannabis to be bad (by rather glibly assuming that, if legalized, cannabis would be responsible for as much lung cancer as tobacco and as many automobile fatalities as alcohol, neither of which assertion is anywhere near as self-evident or factual as it is made to sound) they consider stuff like heroin and cocaine to be far worse. Therefore, we may assume, they are recommending that heroin and cocaine be taxed at a much higher rate; if cannabis will have a tax rate high enough to deter consumption (on the model of cigarette taxation in the U.K. in 2016, or alcohol taxation in Sweden in 2016, which still operates the same “glum state liquor-stores” now that the editorial observes in 1988) it will have a tax rate low enough to make cannabis the more attractive option to a consumer considering whether to purchase legal state-regulated cannabis over legal state-regulated crack rocks or china-white.


This offers us a useful means, however, of approaching what different styles of “non-prohibition” (to use Aoyagi’s term again) might look like in practice. What The Economist was advocating, somewhat remarkably, in 1988 was full legalisation, which must be distinguished from decriminalisation or depenalisation. Diep (2015) offers a somewhat useful nutshell summary for what is at stake:


Decriminalization generally means laws that reduce or eliminate the punishments associated with possessing small amounts of marijuana or other recreational drugs. In a decriminalized state, selling lots of drugs is still a serious crime. Legalization, on the other hand, means allowing people not only to consume, but also to sell bulk amounts of a drug. A legalized state may even try to set up a system for regulating and taxing drug sales. (Diep 2015)


This is why it is fascinating to see a magazine like The Economist — which ordinarily would have the same abject horror in the face of words like “government regulation” and “taxation” as any doctrinaire young Thatcherite circa 1988 (when the editorial was published) — arguing in such mellifluously jocular tones in favor of establishing a state bureaucracy with heavy regulation and high taxation. In some sense, the editorial is attempting to prove, by inversion, a very Thatcherite point about the deadening effect that such governmental regulation and taxation has upon free enterprise. After all, the purpose of state-owned liquor sales in Sweden was — in a Scandinavian social-welfare-state fashion — to place a curb on Sweden’s astonishingly high rates of alcoholism. (The United Kingdom may have similarly high rates of alcoholism, but the method of social control comes from a different form of regulation, which is licensing laws — to find a pint past midnight, you have to find a venue with live music, and to find a pint at four in the morning, you have to go to Scotland.) The underlying assumption that heavy state regulation is fundamentally bad for businesses and discouraging for consumers is made into a joke; the authors of the editorial seem to suggest that it’s a win-win situation if drugs are made legal in such a way that would effectively throttle the drug trade through government interference in it. But what they do not acknowledge is that the war on drugs, which they are ready to declare a total failure, could equally be characterized as a kind of government interference in commerce — it is in fact far more costly than any bureaucratic apparatus regulating and taxing the sale of drugs would be, and far more invasive, and it has had no effect whatsoever. This leads one to conclude that perhaps the editors of The Economist have far too sanguine an acceptance of their own ideological tenet that more government action and interference in a marketplace is necessarily bad for the market. The Reagan administration could not have intervened more brutally and violently, nor with more cost in terms of dedicated government financial resources and manpower, in the drug trade, and never for a minute did it seem like the Reagan administration was on the verge of eradicating the trade in crack cocaine.


This is a useful way to approach the subject because, of course, the sort of across-the-board legalisation that The Economist was (perhaps winkingly) advocating in 1988 is not actually a policy that any politician would ever be able to endorse, nor one that the public would ever be likely to embrace. The idea that the government might stop combating the heroin trade and instead take it over strikes most people as repellent, despite the fact that Great Britain fought not one but two full-scale wars in the mid-nineteenth century while basically doing the equivalent: in the First Opium War, approximately twenty thousand Chinese citizens died under fire from the gunboats of the British Navy, because the Chinese emperor refused to legalise and tax the trade in British opium, and opted instead for a policy of total prohibition. There is a certain level of irony, then, in the concept itself of going directly from prohibition to legalisation. Rolles (2009), in After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation, actually frames the irony quite elegantly:


A spectrum of different approaches exists for controlling and regulating the production, supply and possession/use of different drugs. These can be broadly seen as existing on a continuum between the poles of completely unregulated free markets, and harshly enforced punitive prohibition. Ironically both of these extremes entail little or no market regulation. Between them sit the various options for legal regulation (Rolles 2009, 15)


In other words, a libertarian dream of unrestricted free markets would ultimately have the same sort of effect as the present regime of punitive prohibition. An unregulated black market is an unregulated free market which happens to be illegal. And indeed Kleiman and Ziskind (2014) are forced to acknowlege that, in any scheme of legalisation, there may be “some natural advantages” to the black market that flourishes under prohibition:


In the long run, a legal market should require less enforcement attention than an illegal market. But regulations and taxes do not enforce themselves, and an untaxed and unregulated illegal market has some natural advantages over a taxed and regulated legal market, especially when the legal market is new and competitive pressures and technological advances have not yet driven prices down. Just as the first step in making rabbit stew is catching a rabbit, the first step in running a controlled market is to draw customers in from the uncontrolled markets. That will require mounting sufficient enforcement efforts to shift the balance of competitive advantage toward licit activity. (80)


In some sense, however, an illegal market merely replicates the conditions of a completely unrestricted (and amorally vicious) capitalism. This is one reason why the trade in illegal drugs so often carries with it an astonishing amount of internecine violence on the part of those conducting the trade — if shooting a business rival were no more or less legal than the business that was being conducted on Wall Street or in the City of London, then we can be certain that stock-traders and hedge-fund managers would be shot dead by enemies at the pinnacle of their careers like Tupac Shakur or Biggie Smalls. There are better reasons, however, why a certain amount of regulation might be necessary — consumer safety, for example — if legalisation is to be seriously considered as an option.


We will return to legalisation shortly. But it is necessary to make a fuller examination of the other two options that could replace the present system of punitive prohibition. These are decriminalisation and depenalisation. As decriminalisation is, in some sense, the most familiar option, we will address it more fully in context; for now, it is worth examining the less-familiar concept of depenalisation, and what it entails. According to Mead (2014) depenalisation “has been described as legal changes that reduce the severity of penalties, whether criminal or civil …possession remains a criminal offence, but in most cases, offenders are cautioned or diverted to alternative resources, including education, treatment, etc.” (51). It is here that we might recall Aoyagi’s characterization of “punitive prohibition” which essentially suggests that the best way to deal with those who use recreational drugs is to punish them severely, often with incarceration. In the long run, this cannot make sense, because incarceration is an exceptionally costly thing for the state to undertake; only in America, where a regime of incarceration is basically employed to sustain a racialized caste-system under the guise of criminal justice is it even possible to persuade the public that it is a good idea to lock up so many people for such long sentences for what are ultimately minor offenses regarding prohibited substances like cannabis. Yet this is what happened in America, as “the rapid rise in incarceration in the U.S. and several other countries from the 1970s through the 2000s has often been driven by the incarceration of drug users.” (Drucker 2014, 69). Great Britain, which has an altogether different attitude towards incarceration than America, also has a greater emphasis arguably on things like rehabilitation. And certainly in Cameron’s age of austerity, the notion of laying out vast expenditures in policing, trying, sentencing, and incarcerating individuals for cannabis-related offenses is already starting to seem like a foolish waste of resources.


For that reason, it is worth noting that depenalisation as a concept is already in existence as de facto policy in portions of the country. In July 2015, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Durham county, Ron Hogg, announced that he would no longer actively pursue those who smoked cannabis or who grew it on a small scale, and had issued this directive for the entire police force under his control — Hogg’s justification was “dwindling resources” in the austerity era (Bealum 2015). Although the British press tried rather predictably to whip up some outrage over the existence of a Police and Crime Commissioner who had instructed his police force to no longer bother making arrests for cannabis-related crimes, the bigger surprise came about a week later when — rather than inspiring mobs of Daily Mail readers with pitchforks to gather outside Durham building a PCC-Ron-Hogg-sized wicker man — the announcement instead provoked similar announcements from police chiefs in three more counties, Derbyshire, Dorset, and Surrey (Paton 2015). The Police and Crime Commissioner for Darbyshire, Alan Charles, told the Daily Mail that, given recent budget cuts, his constabulary could not “keep turning out to every single thing reported to us” while Kevin Hurley, Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey, stated that cannabis was “low on a long list of priorities” and debating it was “pointless” (Paton 2015). As the policy that seems to have been enunciated by all of these police is that, by and large, the most that smoking or growing cannabis will merit by way of response is a caution, it does seem to fit with Mead’s most basic definition of depenalisation — it certainly does not fit in with the depenalisation model whereby offenders are redirected to education or treatment, as the largest motivating factor seems to be a lack of resources. It is worth noting, however, that these four high-ranking police officials also seem to be behaving as though the Blunkettian interregnum of 2004-2009, when cannabis was reclassified as a less-harmful Class C drug, had not been reversed by Jacqui Smith. It may be worth noting that the Cameron government’s self-congratulatory 2014 report on “Drugs: International Comparators” may have missed the biggest result of Blunkett’s reclassification, in claiming that “there is robust evidence that adult drug use in England and Wales has been on a downward trend since a peak in the early 2000s … The largest contributing factor to this downward trend is cannabis use, which declined from 10.6% to 6.6% over the last ten years” [8] Could it be that Blunkett’s policy, in place for more than a third of that time period, played some part? If this is a confusion of correlation with causation, it is no different from such confusions routinely promulgated by the Cameron government to bolster support for prohibition. But at this point, even Britain’s police are wearying of prohibition, if the actions of Hogg and his colleagues is any indication. Whether their motivation is simply an attempt to make the most of lean budgets or a more lofty act of civil disobedience against the reclassification debacle, the state of affairs effectively resembles depenalisation. One of the biggest ironies of this situation, though, is that the Cameron government’s “Drug Strategy 2010” actually tries to suggest that policing budgets are an insoluble mystery, claiming that “it is difficult to disaggregate how much is spent enforcing drug laws from enforcement activity against other types of illegal behaviour.” (20). Yet Britain’s actual police forces are perfectly aware that enforcing cannabis laws is a waste of resources.


However Adda McConnell and Rasul (2014) actually evaluated a strategic localized policy in which depenalisation was attempted as an official policy in Lambeth, a borough in south London. From mid-1998 to early 2006, Lambeth constabulary decided effectively to cease enforcing the law regarding possession of cannabis in small amounts. Adda McConnell and Rasul (2014) looked at the police statistics in Lambeth during the relevant time period, to examine not only criminal offences related to drugs, but also seven other non-drug-related criminal offences. Their study concludes that, in the time period when depenalisation was Lambeth’s official policy, five of the seven non-drug-related criminal offences decreased to a significant and measurable degree, due to reallocation of resources away from cannabis law enforcement. As a result, statistically speaking, non-drug-related crime fell by roughly ten percent in Lambeth compared to all other London boroughs which experienced no such crime reduction. However in the same time period, recorded instances of cannabis-related crime were vastly higher in Lambeth, and additionally real estate values in the borough plummeted around 200 million pounds in the same 7.5-year duration of the depenalisation experiment, suggesting that the policy experiment had turned Lambeth essentially into a domestic cannabis-tourism destination, London’s answer to Baltimore’s “Hamsterdam” from The Wire. The conclusion to be drawn, however, is that if all of London had implemented a depenalisation policy simultaneously, these negative effects would have evaporated. But depenalisation in Lambeth borough, in the account of Adda McConnell and Rasul (2014) can ultimately be used on three basic points as a model for how other depenalisation policies have been implemented around the world: (i) the possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal consumption was still a recordable offence, but would no longer lead to the individual being arrested; (ii) the primary motivation was to free up police time and other resources to focus on crimes related to other drugs or other non-drug related crimes; (iii) the policy did not alter penalties for cannabis supply. (Adda McConnell Rasul 5)


Ultimately, however, depenalisation comes across in this account of the Lambeth “experiment” as a mixed blessing at best. In some sense, we might evaluate it according to that old chestnut, the “broken windows” theory of policing, which holds that visible signs of disorder and “urban blight” — the broken windows on a vacant building which go unreported and unrepaired — ultimately provide a profound cue for the widespread perception of criminality. As long as cannabis remains illegal, a large number of unreprimanded public cannabis smokers will give the impression of criminality, because illegality always carries with it a sense of stigma. In the case of cannabis and other drugs, we may recall that sometimes glamour can be the seductive doppelganger of stigma, but the perception is by no means universal: those members of the population who find public drug-use to be glamourous are also unlikely to be the same members of the population who can afford to purchase real estate. There are other potential downsides to depenalisation as well. Hall and Degenhardt (2014) have observed that depenalisation by means of substituting a penalty which falls short of arrest and incarceration — such as a monetary fine — can end up backfiring when one “unintended consequence of depenalisation via civil penalties could be an increase in numbers of persons fined by the police, an effect referred to as ‘net widening’. This occurs because the police find it easier and less time-consuming to impose a fine than to arrest and process a criminal charge” (702). But of course in the British examples surveyed here — the Lambeth experiment from 1998 to 2006, and the more recent austerity-driven announcements in Durham, Derbyshire, Dorset, and Surrey — there was no substitution of this sort. Instead the police found it “easier and less time-consuming” to pretend that Blunkett’s reclassification of cannabis as mostly harmless had remained in place.


How then does depenalisation differ from decriminalisation? In both circumstances, essentially, some form of legal prohibition remains in place. Depenalisation merely changes the police response in terms of penalty: even Ron Hogg on his Durham austerity budget will caution a public cannabis smoker if necessary, and he did feel the need to specifically state that the laws would be enforced for anyone who was “blatant” about their cannabis use. (PCC Hogg declined to clarify what his standard for “blatant” cannabis use was, but presumably enjoying a spliff in a public park passes without comment, while lighting up a Camberwell Carrot in the local Marks and Spencer would result in the sort of police action that one ordinarily expects.) Decriminalisation by contrast removes not only the penalty but the criminality from certain types of formerly-prohibited actions, such as possession of cannabis in moderate amounts. Rosmarin and Eastwood (2012) wisely caution that “decriminalisation is not a panacea for all of the problems associated with problematic drug use; a country’s drug-enforcement policies appear to have but a minor effect on the impact of drugs in a society. But what emerges is that the harms of criminalisation far outweigh those of decriminalisation.” (14).


It is here with decriminalisation that large amounts of scholarly investigation and substantial quantities of interpretable data become available, because of course the decriminalisation model has been employed in Europe. We may begin with perhaps the best-known example, that of the Netherlands. Mungroo Yu et al. (2014) offer a useful summary of how decriminalisation works in the Dutch model, and the irony is that the Dutch model seems to blur the lines between the three different options of legalisation, depenalisation, and decriminalisation:


Dutch law states unequivocally that cannabis is illegal. Yet in 1976 the Dutch adopted a formal written policy of non-enforcement for violations involving possession or sale of up to 30 g. In 1995, in response to domestic and international pressures, this threshold for possession was lowered to 5 g. A formal written policy regulates the sale of those small amounts in open commercial establishments (a 500 g limit on trade stocks was established in 1995). Enforcement against those supplying larger amounts is aggressive. The Netherlands has experienced both non-enforcement (rather than de-criminalisation) and commercialisation. Evidence suggests that the removal of criminal prohibitions on cannabis possession does not increase the prevalence of cannabis or any other illicit drug. It is thought however that commercialisation may increase demand for cannabis and it is proposed that making cannabis fully legal would lead to increases in use due to product promotion (15)


In other words, this is a highly regulated system. The “aggressive” prosecution of any commercial establishment that violates the highly circumscribed limitations on permissible amounts of cannabis — which, as noted, were further reduced in 1995 presumably due to the quantities being smuggled back out of the Netherlands by those who had essentially visited as “cannabis tourists” — indicates that the Dutch refusal to alter the initial law in which cannabis is illegal has a purpose. But the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts for personal use has not, in fact, led to an explosion in use. Instead, the risk lies in the direction of full legalisation, which would not only turn cannabis into a full-blown marketplace, but would also entail things like “product promotion” in an attempt to seize a larger share of the market.


What is equally interesting is that the concept that is toyed with in the 1988 editorial from The Economist — that a regulated marketplace could steer consumers away from “bad” drugs like heroin and cocaine, and in the direction of the comparatively acceptable cannabis — does seem to have taken place in the Netherlands. Grund and Breeksema (2013) in their analysis of the Dutch policy note that — in that particular arena — the Dutch model of decriminalisation actually has more of the desired affect than the most extravagant regimes of prohibition and enforcement in the United States:


A risk considered by Dutch policymakers was that people buying illicit marijuana would be in contact with those selling harder drugs. As designated commercial sources for marijuana evolved, it came to pass that drug users were much less likely to buy harder drugs from their cannabis sources. For example, in Sweden, 52% of marijuana users report that other drugs are available from their usual cannabis source. In the Netherlands, only 14% of marijuana users can get other drugs from their cannabis source. This is largely because the vast majority of cannabis users buy from coffee shops. In addition, these businesses generate around €400 million per year in tax revenues, according to some conservative estimates. By a number of indicators, the Dutch drug policy approach has been more successful than more repressive policies. One study found that people who use cannabis in Amsterdam are less likely to use cocaine than are marijuana users in the U.S. It said: “Only 22% of those [in Amsterdam] aged 12 and over who have ever used cannabis have also used cocaine … This compares to a figure of 33% for the United States.” Furthermore, access to a commercial market for cannabis did not prompt the Dutch to become the world’s most prolific cannabis consumers. On the contrary, cannabis use stayed on par with European averages and remains far lower than in stricter environments like the United States. (4)


More recent than the Dutch policy, however, is the much-observed drug law reform in Portugal. Portugal in 2001 implemented a policy of across-the-board drug decriminalisation — not just cannabis, but heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, and any other drug imaginable. For any of these drugs, possession or use was no longer a crime — although the drugs themselves remained illegal, as did possession of more than ten days’ supply of the drug (which would indicate that one was a drug dealer rather than a user). But for anyone with ten days’ supply or less of a drug, the sanction is not criminal but administrative, such as a fine, a ban on visiting certain places or meeting certain people, or rehabilitation. But in essence the Portuguese system replaces policemen and punishment with social work, and as Weiss (2015) observed for Psychology Today, “Portugal’s unprecedented strategy of connecting rather than isolating problem drug users has been effective.” Hughes and Stevens (2010) note that the Portuguese law reform did not result in an increase in overall drug use: it was not as though criminal penalties actually did act as a deterrent, and their abolition opened the floodgates for an increase in drug use. But the overall approach has been one in which the basic underlying paradigm for understanding and responding to drug use has been altered. As Domoslawski (2011) has written about the Portuguese decriminalisation:


Decriminalization in itself is neither an action nor a policy. “It does not have magical power as some claim,” noted IDT Chairman Joao Goulao, one of the key participants in the development of Portugal’s new approach and policy toward drug use. Decriminalization only creates a legal framework for implementing policies to reduce the harm caused by drug consumption and to socially reintegrate drug dependent persons. For drug users, decriminalization removes the reason why those with dependencies are afraid of undergoing treatment. It also allows people who help dependent users to provide assistance without being treated as the accomplices of criminal offenders. This approach is based both on humane considerations (i.e., a sick person needs help) as well as pragmatic ones (i.e., repressive measures have been ineffective at limiting consumption).


(Domoslawski 2011, 22)


In some sense, of course, one of the things that the Portuguese approach has confronted most effectively is the same thing that (arguably) the Lambeth experiment with depenalisation failed to confront — the idea of stigma. It helps, perhaps, that the initial impetus for the Portuguese reforms in 2001 was Portugal’s astonishingly high rate of HIV infection due to intravenous drug use. As clean needle exchanges for intravenous drug users are usually a flagship program for “harm reduction” policies, it seems noteworthy that the Portuguese approach was one of wholesale adoption of harm reduction, combined with a refusal to treat a public health issue as a source of stigma. There can perhaps never be a complete eradication of stigma with something like heroin addiction or with something like HIV, however replacing a criminal justice system which intends to further stigmatize people through incarceration with a social services system which refuses to stigmatize those who use drugs, seems to have been on the whole effective and suggestive for further directions in managing drug use worldwide. However, as Hughes and Stevens (2012) would later ruefully note, the “nuanced, albeit largely positive, implications from this reform” in Portugal would be subjected to “deliberate misinterpretation of evidence” with “selective uses of data and divergent conclusions” on the part of various partisans in the UK (111). The Portuguese evidence ends up being used as ammunition in Great Britain for those in favor of decriminalisation and for those in favor of maintaining the status quo of punitive prohibition.


What remains, however, is an example of actual legalisation in practice. This is where other recent examples of policy change become most salient, as many of the clearest examples of a straightforward legalisation come from within the United States (although not from the United States itself0. As Caulkins (2014) observes,


… cannabis is of interest because there is much better empirical evidence concerning how prohibition affects production costs and wholesale prices, for two reasons. First, there are well- established regimes of partial legalisation. The Netherlands has de facto legalised retail sales of up to five grams.16 Alaska has legalised personal possession and home growing of up to 25 plants. And a number of western U.S. states, including California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, have legalised medical cannabis production and sale, including via bricks-and-mortar ‘dispensaries,’ with rules about medical eligibility so broad that effectively anyone can buy a medical recommendation (20)


But of course this is legalisation rather than decriminalisation, so it means that there is not the same underlying legal framework as in the Netherlands and Portugal, where the drug itself remains illegal. Because the drug itself is no longer illegal, that changes the dynamic of the enforcement of restrictions. So in Colorado, as Finlaw and Brohl (2013) report, “while Amendment 64 made it legal for persons 21 and over to possess small amounts of marijuana, it did not address the concerns of juveniles in possession of the same. Children must be protected while implementing this amendment, but their criminalisation for minor possession is not deemed to be in their best interest, nor that of the community. Rather, public education and treatment should be prominent.” (89). And the end result of this policy goal is that teens are “less worried about risks, but also less able to get weed when they want it” and “the net effect may be the flat use rates” (Ingraham 2015). This demonstrates that the prominence given to education in the decriminalisation and depenalisation models does not vanish in a framework of legalisation.


Of course one issue that does remain in a legalisation framework is the issue of medicinal use. Many examples of legalisation are, in reality, a legalisation for medical purposes, and this still requires a doctor’s prescription or supervision. Although Caulkins above suggests that the medical guidelines are so broad that anyone can essentially buy a medical license to consume cannabis, the issues related to medical cannabis remain significant. In the UK, where medical legalisation has lingered far behind the rest of the developed world, this is especially noteworthy. The UK has a long prior history of acknowledging the medicinal utility of cannabis: the example of Queen Victoria was mentioned earlier, but even more ironic is the fact that the very first attempt to evaluate and regulate cannabis by the British government acknowledged medical utility, in the 1894 Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, Her Majesty’s government concluded “it has been clearly established that the occasional use of hemp in moderate doses may be beneficial; but this use may be regarded as medicinal in character (quoted in Backes Weil 2014, 15). Medicinal use has not been approved in the UK even though it is obvious that, as Curran and Warburton (2015) have observed, “an adjustment to the current UK control regime to give patients the right to medication that they believe works for them is unlikely to have any wider impact on the level of recreational cannabis use.” (10). Of course the regime of punitive prohibition has made it even more difficult to establish the medical utility of cannabis than for a dangerous and largely untested new pharmaceutical being produced commercially; Bakalar and Grinspoon (1997) comment on this “ironical situation. More is known about the adverse effects and therapeutic uses of marihuana than about most prescription drugs … It is one of humanity’s oldest medicines, with a remarkable record of both safety and efficacy … ” yet governments “classify it as a ‘new’ drug and demand the same testing it would require for an unknown substance” (256). They observe additionally that “Consumers have not had the right to choose … marihuana since 1937” (Bakalar Grinspoon 1988, 30). Regarding this removal by law of cannabis from the British medical pharmacopeia, JH Mills (2003) sternly observes that “the legislation had no grounds in science or medicine and indeed it has been argued had no grounds in real issues of social order or of crime and punishment” (15). But the further difficulty is that governments invested in prohibition have essentially had to block scientific truth in order to maintain their legal position. For example, one of the most routinely-hurled accusations regarding cannabis legalisation is that adolescent cannabis use causes schizophrenia. If this were the case, it would be a strong argument for prohibition, of course. However, this is a classic method of deceiving the public. As Werb and Watson (2015) note of this style of argument in suppressing evidence for medical utility, or promoting spurious evidence of medical harmfulness, “many of the claims confuse correlation and causation. Although scientific evidence may find associations between two events, this does not indicate that one necessarily caused the other. Put simply, correlation does not equal causation. This is a commonly made mistake when interpreting scientific evidence in all fields, and is unsurprisingly a recurring source of confusion in the discourse on cannabis use and regulation” (2). This is what has happened regarding this issue, as they clarify that “while scientific evidence supports an association between cannabis use and schizophrenia, a causal relationship has not been established” (7). This is borne out overall in the medical literature, as in the most recent study be Bechtold and Simpson (2015) which finds “little to no evidence to suggest that patterns of marijuana use from adolescence to young adulthood, for the Black and White young men in the present study, were negatively related to the indicators of physical or mental health studied here. This does not discredit the work of others. It could be the case that cumulative tetrahydrocannabinol exposure, age of initiation of use, or use at one particular age is more predictive of negative health outcomes than the overall pattern of use between adolescence and adulthood.” (560). But of course there are other ways of validating this claim that medical risks have been overstated; Warb and Maghsoudi (2015) point out that the facts can just as easily be established by noting that “If cannabis use caused schizophrenia, we would expect to see increases in incidence as rates of cannabis use have increased, but this trend has not been observed” (9). In summarizing the Dutch experience from a medical perspective, Van Den Brink (2008) is willing to concede all of the worst possible assumptions about potential negative effects of cannabis and still decide against a continued policy of punitive prohibition, noting that even if evidence has shown that cannabis use is not without risks … criminalization is an expensive strategy involving considerable policing, prosecution and a fair amount of incarceration, that decriminalization does not result in lower prices and higher consumption rates, nor in more severe patterns of cannabis use, that prohibition and criminalization are associated with social harms to the cannabis user, that decriminalization may reduce the association between cannabis use and schizophrenia and between cannabis use and the use of other illicit drugs, and that criminalization may reduce the legitimacy of the judicial system. (125)


This last point is subtle but is worth considering seriously. In the global community, as Madrozo (2014) points out, this frequently amounts to a betrayal of “long-held values — principles, rights or institutions — that inform our systems of government and which is justified not in and of itself, but rather as a means to achieve a very specific objective: to better enforce the prohibition of illicit drugs” (Madrazo 56). But on the personal and domestic level, Grinspoon (1994) rephrases and expands a similar point by noting that one consequence of prohibition is the “lost credibility of government. Young people who discover that the authorities have been lying about cannabis become cynical about their pronouncements on other drugs and disdainful of their commitment to justice.” (12). With cannabis prohibition this is especially noteworthy given the level of mendacity that has been endorsed at the governmental level in justification of prohibition. The now-discredited “gateway drug” claim links cannabis to later usage of cocaine and heroin, but Reuter (2014) observes that “Morocco, a traditional producer of cannabis, is the major foreign source of cannabis to Western Europe, it does not appear to have an important role in the importation of cocaine or heroin.” (35). Other claims have included a hysterical inflation of the risks posed by “stronger” strains of cannabis, but Morgan and Zimmer (1995) says a review of all available medical literature “reveals an occasional study indicating greater toxicity than previously thought. But in nearly all such cases, the methodologies were seriously flawed and the findings could not be replicated by other researchers.” (1). Additionally Hari (2016) points out that such increased strength is a direct consequence of prohibition “as crackdowns on a drug become more harsh, the milder forms of that drug disappear — and the most extreme strains become most widely available.” It is routinely claimed that cannabis correlates with crime, but Reuter and Stevens (2008) demonstrate that “inside the UK, heroin and crack cocaine are considered to be more important than cannabis in influencing levels of crime” (462). Bryan, Del Bono et al. (2013) note that there is “no statistically significant evidence of a causal link between cannabis use and acquisitive or violent crime, but a modest significant link with supply activity — suggesting an overall net saving on crime costs from reform.” (114). Moreover as Csete (2014) notes, approaching drug-related crime from a public health rather than punitive perspective is actually more productive, when “a significant body of evidence shows that health services for people who use drugs have significant social and economic benefits, including reduction of crime” (76) And of course prohibition as it exists has been the direct cause of much existing drug-related crime, as Atuesta Becerra (2014) points out that “it was because of prohibition that the guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug cartels were able to finance their criminal activities.” (53). Additionally the prohibitionist regime is bad for relations between the U.K. and the developing world: as Mejia (2014) indicates “prohibitionist drug policies can be understood as a transfer of the costs of the ‘drugs problem’ faced by consumer countries to producer and transit countries.” (27). And in many cases these are the only economic options available, although as Felbab-Brown (2014) observes, “even if smart alternative livelihoods efforts were undertaken globally, they would not eliminate the global drug trade.” (45).


It is easy to endorse non-prohibition as the obvious goal for cannabis in the UK. But what form should this non-prohibition take? Depenalisation is already being tried in four UK counties, although not as part of official policy. Decriminalisation of cannabis on the Dutch or Portuguese model would be no different from Blunkett’s reclassification of it as a Class C drug (most of which are mild sedatives). However, what seems most glaring is the UK’s unwillingness to acknowledge its medical utility. It therefore seems like the best possible solution to legalise cannabis but to do so under medical conditions. This would not preclude its recreational use, but it would ensure that anyone planning to take it recreationally would be required to get direct medical advice about cannabis before using it. By making cannabis acceptable as medicine — something that requires no new bureaucracy to regulate but can be grafted onto the crowning glory of Great Britain’s postwar Welfare State, the National Health Service — Britain joins the ranks of pretty much every other country in Europe (save France). It is also worth recollecting the most basic fact from the long history of human cultivation of cannabis, as summarized by Ernest Abel (1980) in his history of the plant:


The 12,000-year-long history of cannabis clearly shows that laws against its usage – whether it was hashish in the Arab countries, dagga in Africa, or marijuana in America – have been adopted in response to a perceived threat to society. Since the main users of cannabis drugs were typically poor and from minority groups as well, cannabis was a feared substance, something capable of unleashing the unbridled passions thought to be characteristic of these people. Only when marijuana became commonplace were such beliefs challenged and disregarded. (Abel 1980, 288)


The historical pattern that Abel has singled out repeatedly over a dozen millennia of human history is, of course, one that can be observed in our own historical moment. Cannabis in Great Britain in 2016 has become “commonplace” and as a result the customary panic and suspicion, born (as Abel suggests) largely of racism, is being “challenged and disregarded.” For Great Britain, the real goal will be to set limits to capitalism by allowing cannabis to be properly regulated, and that requires legalisation through medicalisation.




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